As long as she can remember, Isabel Dietz Hartmann has been drawn to the rift between external appearance and what lies beneath. For the Seattle and NYC-based photographer, these various forms of self-portrayal and awareness, whether it’s something as externally loaded as an item of clothing or tattoo, or the subtle way one might hold their hands when they are aware that people are looking at them, can act as barriers to understanding ones self and connecting with others. For the past few years, she’s been making A Prison and A Nook, a series of elegant, yet self-aware black and white photographs that attempt to understand this tension in its archetypes.
The series title comes from a passage from 19th Century philosopher Frederick Nietzsche’s 1886 work Beyond Good and Evil: “Not to remain stuck to a person - not even the most loved - every person is a prison, also a nook.” “This contradiction,” says Dietz Hartmann, “describes what I'm trying to communicate in my work. Like a nook, the identities we choose keep us safe from others and simultaneously isolate us. We are cozy in our identities as we struggle desperately to escape them.”
At first glance, Hartmann’s portraits bring to mind a range of influences in contemporary photographic portraiture: Alec Soth, Judith Joy Ross, Deanna Lawson, Rineke Dijkstra. They poetically capture a mix of tenderness and awkwardness, and acknowledge the photographer’s gaze in the process. But they also nod to portraiture’s painted history, mainly in their attention to how light and the subtleties of body language can sway how viewers perceive a person and their psychology. In many of her images, her specific attention to hand gestures and their implications of a balance between power and vulnerability recall the work of 16th century Italian Mannerist painter Angolo Bronzino. In the above untitled portrait for example, a boy transitioning from adolescence into adulthood stares into the lens with a confrontational yet vulnerable gaze. He’s athletic and holds a kind of contemporary Adonis-like physique, but his shoulders -- one of which is covered in Band-Aids- slant asymmetrically as he awkwardly cradles one thumb in the palm of another. While he might project power or control, he stands exposed.
“My best photographs come when I have time and space with subjects.” Says Hartmann. She often pre-visualizes specific concepts for her portraits before spending hours with her subjects and photographing them in their intimate spaces. These are mostly people she has a close personal relationship with, which allows her to expose a combination of external presentation and what she knows about their internal monologues. “It is a little nerve-racking because I don’t want the work to be solely a document of a personal history, but I believe my connection to the subjects allows me to explore my own mythology…and capture recognizable archetypes from society who are in the midst of sharing their inner life.”
Bio: Isabel Dietz Hartmann is a 24 year old photographer originally from Seattle, WA and is a recent graduate from The School of Visual Arts in New York City. She is interested in themes surrounding isolation, human development, identity, vulnerability, connection, and loneliness.
Author: Jon Feinstein